Israel's post-heroic disaster

Thomas O'Dwyer
30 April 2007

Here was the news, live and in Hebrew from Israel, blaring out of Hizbollah's al-Manar television station in Lebanon. Nothing could better illustrate the bizarre new realities emerging in the tortured middle east than this broadcast on the afternoon of 30 April 2007, complete with detailed commentary, covering the release of the Winograd committee's interim report on Israel's disastrous "second Lebanon war" in July-August 2006.

Here was Hizbollah, the avowed enemy of what it calls the "hostile entity" to its south, rejoicing over the entity's own scorching report on the conduct of a war that has left the Israeli establishment reeling from top to bottom, and its public tossed on waves of shock, confusion and uncertainty.

In Washington, Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, was asked about President George W Bush's reaction to the Winograd report, and issued the anodyne comment that the report was "obviously, internal investigations within the Israeli government."

He was clearly unaware of the reverberations of this "internal investigation" already echoing across the middle east and the connections that were being forged in Arab media between the moral defeat of Israel in Lebanon last summer and the looming American defeat in Iraq.

"This proves our enemy can be defeated, the path of resistance can bring victory", said Sheikh Hassan Ezzeddine, a senior Hizbollah political official. What more convincing stamp of victory could there be than to have the enemy itself admit in its own language that it had botched a war?

"The report proves our divine victory came true", said Ezzeddine. "The Israeli side was defeated ... revealing the weaknesses of those who thought they couldn't be beaten. What happened proves what we said all along - that this enemy can be defeated."

Thomas O'Dwyer is a country risk consultant, journalist and broadcaster who has lived in the middle east for twenty years. He has been a Reuters bureau chief, foreign editor of the Jerusalem Post, and a columnist with the International Herald Tribune's Ha'aretz newspaper

Also by Thomas O'Dwyer in openDemocracy:

"Slouching towards Kadima"
(27 March 2006)

"Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel"
(14 July 2006)

The intifada's legacy

The sudden summer war was sparked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid by Hizbollah on 12 July 2006. In thirty-four days of fighting, Israel failed to accomplish Olmert's publicly stated goals of both freeing the soldiers and destroying Hizbollah. An estimated 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed in the fighting, along with 119 Israeli soldiers, and thirty-nine civilians killed by Hizbollah rocket attacks into Israel.

June 2007 will mark forty years since Israel's stunning total victory in the six-day war against its Arab enemies. The anniversary could well be marked by sombre readings from the Winograd report while the country ponders not how far it has advanced since then, but how rapidly its once unassailable strategic superiority has been slipping from its grasp.

When a national blunder has been made, it's comforting to have just one scapegoat. After the first Lebanon war of 1982, the Kahan commission pinned most of the blame for everything - from deceiving the then prime minister Menachem Begin to failing to stop the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila by Lebanese militias - on then defence minister Ariel Sharon.

This time, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, in his 232-page interim report (the full version will be published in July), comprehensively pins guilt on the entire establishment. The Israeli army was not ready for a war. Prime minister Ehud Olmert acted hastily in leading the country into war without a plan - "a severe failure in the lack of judgment, responsibility and caution."

That's almost complimentary compared to Winograd's scathing indictment of defence minister Amir Peretz. "He has no knowledge or experience on diplomatic, military, or government affairs. He has no knowledge on the use of the military as tool to achieve goals. Nevertheless, he took decisions without consultation, and didn't give enough weight to contrary views. He failed to fulfill his role, and he didn't act out on the basis of a strategic plan."

"I have no intention of resigning", Olmert was quoted by Israeli television as telling members of his Kadima party after the report was released. A snap Israel Radio poll said 69% of the public believed he should quit at once.

Former defence chief-of-staff Dan Halutz - the only senior player so far to have fallen on his sword and quit over the conduct of the war - "was not ready for the kidnapping [of the soldiers]", says Winograd.

"He acted impulsively ... his culpability is made more severe by the fact that he knew the prime minister and the defense minister had no experience, and his claim that the army was ready and had plan. He had no real answer to the doubts raised over the plan, and didn't present any to the political leadership. In all these areas, the chief of staff failed to fulfill his role, and he did not act with responsibility, good judgment, or professionalism."

Winograd captures well the cavalier and foolhardy machismo of a feeble political leadership and ill-prepared army in July 2006. What lay beyond his brief was the no less serious culpability of an Israeli public thirsting for a decisive victory over Hizbollah, after the energy sapping years of the inconclusive Palestinian intifada.

Like the public's serious misjudgment of Hizbollah's ability to resist, the Israeli military's abysmal performance was based on its wearisome six-year effort to crush the intifada and hunt down terrorists. This led to less classical combat-training for recruits, no training at all for reserve soldiers, and a lowering of standards of soldiering among all professional units.

More than one commentator has recently noted that the political incompetence during the second Lebanon war was very similar to that of the first one in 1982. But in 1982, at least the army knew how to fight ground battles.

Also in openDemocracy on the impact of war on politics in Israel:

Eric Silver, "A united, worried Israel"
(21 July 2006)

Eric Silver, "Israel's bleak post-mortem"
(18 August 2006)

Menachem Kellner, "The war in Lebanon: a view from Haifa"
(8 August 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (20 April 2007)

Time to go

The political fallout of Winograd will be messy. On 1 May, the labour minister, Eitan Cabel, became the first cabinet colleague to resign, saying: "I cannot sit in a government with Olmert at its head". The prime minister himself, so far, remains defiant. In his first reaction to Winograd, Olmert said he would not resign but that "lessons would be learned" from the report's findings. The most important lessons however may already have been learned outside Israel's borders - mainly the lesson that the era of the invincible Israel is now in full retreat before the era of the missile and what the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called the "post-heroic" realities of the post-Zionist state.

Like Winograd, Yossi Sarid, the influential former minister and leader of the leftist Meretz party, did not mince his words in an editorial comment in Ha'aretz ("Throw them out of office", 30 April 2007). "It's time for a national emergency operation in which all those involved [in Lebanon] should be thrown onto the ash heap of history", he wrote, adding that it was "preposterous" that Olmert had vowed to cling to his seat.

"The blundering duo, Olmert and Peretz, were not alone in overseeing the calamity", writes Sarid. "The entire cabinet of wretched creatures lent their deceitful hands to crafting this threat to our existence ... There is nothing left to say to them now except goodbye. Just go home!"

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